When Ben Zobrist was taken out of the lineup as part of a double switch on a pleasant Monday evening in early May, nobody knew at the time that it might be his last appearance in a Cubs uniform.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon swapped out Zobrist after he grounded into a double play to end the sixth inning in that May 6 ballgame against the Miami Marlins.
The next day, Zobrist was scratched from the lineup roughly an hour before the game for personal reasons and was placed on administrative leave the following day. It's been more than three weeks since then and there's still no indication when — or if — Zobrist will return to the Cubs while he deals with his family situation.
Maddon spoke to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times in Houston Tuesday evening and admitted Zobrist's absence has had an impact while also acknowledging the reality that the veteran utility player may not return in 2019.
“I hope that’s not the case. But he’s at the point now where if he chose to come back, it’s going to take him awhile to get back up to speed, too. We have to mentally be prepared that we will not have him.”
As Maddon indicated — even if Zobrist were ready to return from his personal leave today, he would probably need a few games of a rehab stint somewhere in the minor leagues to get his timing and game shape back. Three weeks off is a long time for any baseball player, let alone a guy who just turned 38 Sunday.
Zobrist has appeared in 26 games for the Cubs this season, posting a .241 average, .343 on-base percentage and only 1 extra-base hit (a double) in 83 at-bats. He's been a very valuable presence in both the lineup and clubhouse since signing with the Cubs prior to the 2016 season (which ended with Zobrist taking home World Series MVP honors).
This season, he was asked to lead off a bunch against right-handed pitchers, setting the table for Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez. Since he's been on leave, Kyle Schwarber has slid into that leadoff spot, but the Cubs still miss Zobrist's consistent quality at-bat and advanced approach at the plate, regardless of where he was hitting in the lineup or what position he was playing in the field.
Zobrist has not talked publicly about his family issues, but we know he and his wife, Julianna, are in the midst of a divorce.
It's a sad situation, but the Cubs have been nothing but supportive and understand family comes first — especially for a player who was nearing the end of his playing career even before all this.
Roughly 2/3 of the MLB season remains and it's still very possible Zobrist returns, but the Cubs can't afford to think that way and must operate as if he will no longer be an option in 2019.
Does that mean Theo Epstein's front office will have to go out and add more position player depth or acquire another veteran bat for the lineup? That remains to be seen.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream
Things didn't get off to a great start for Yu Darvish Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but he managed to right the ship quickly.
After allowing three of the first four batters of the game to score, Darvish struck out 10 of the next 12 Reds that strolled to the plate.
That included a stretch of eight Reds in a row, which set a new Cubs franchise record:
Yu Darvish's 8 consecutive Ks. 😳 pic.twitter.com/mqGS2zF6AK— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 18, 2019
Darvish and Kyle Schwarber (3 hits, 2 RBI) were the only bright spots on the night for the Cubs as they dropped a crucial game 4-2.
The Cardinals also lost, so the Cubs didn't lose any ground in the division, but they did fall to 1.5 games behind the Nationals in the Wild-Card race. Milwaukee won, meaning the Brewers are now tied with the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.
Darvish finished with 13 strikeouts in 7 innings Tuesday night, but gave up all 4 Reds runs.
It makes back-to-back incredible performances from the veteran in the whiff department, as he has 27 strikeouts over his last two starts — second-best in Cubs history:
Yu Darvish struck out 8 straight Reds hitters tonight, the longest single-game streak in Cubs history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 18, 2019
Over his last 2 starts, Darvish has struck out 27. The only Cubs pitcher since 1900 with more K over a 2-game span was Kerry Wood (both ends of 20-K game). pic.twitter.com/frydOLrgLY
"I'm in a pretty good place [right now], but still, we lost," he said. "We need wins at this point, so I'm still frustrated."
As the Cubs make their push toward October, Darvish has been right up there with Kyle Hendricks as the most reliable members of the rotation.
Given the way last year went and his slow start to 2019, the Cubs could not have asked for more from Darvish in the second half of the season while also pitching through some forearm tightness. Since the All-Star Break, the 33-year-old right-hander has a 2.70 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 106 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 73.1 innings.
His performance has been especially huge since veterans Cole Hamels and Jon Lester have struggled to find consistency over the last couple months.
"We're seeing the real version of [Darvish] as a person, not just as a baseball player," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before Tuesday's game. "I think the comfortability level of him with everybody — the media, the coaching staff, the city, every aspect of it has played into it.
"When he's in a good place and he's mentally feeling good and physically feeling good and he's comfortable, the sky's the limit with him and what he can do. He's got the freedom here to be more of himself in that we don't put a lot of restrictions on him and what he wants to do. As long as we kinda have the same focus and same goals, we're all on the same team.
"I feel like he's getting to the point now where he's himself. You see that every time out. He's an ultra competitor; he's an uber planner. His routines are outstanding. He's just ready to go out there and dominate every time he gets the ball."
With the biggest series of the season looming later this week, the Cubs still don't know if they'll have two of their top relievers available out of the bullpen.
The position player group is already without its two most important players (Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez) and the pitching staff has also taken a hit recently with Craig Kimbrel (right elbow) and Brandon Kintzler (left oblique) unavailable.
Kimbrel hasn't pitched since serving up a 3-run homer to Christian Yelich on Sept. 1. He later went on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but initially hoped to be back after the minimum 10-day stay. The best case scenario now would be Kimbrel returning a week beyond his original target date.
He threw a 16-pitch simulated game/live bullpen Tuesday afternoon at Wrigley Field and the Cubs will see how he feels Wednesday before determining the next step. He could either throw another live bullpen session or, if he feels good, return to the active roster and be available for Thursday's series opener with the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.
"He looked really good, actually," Joe Maddon said. "Delivery was good. There was no hesitation with his arm. He wasn't guarding whatsoever. I thought the fastball was alive. Maybe the command of the curveball was off a bit, but the break was there. It was very encouraging."
Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy also liked what he saw from Kimbrel, and felt the Cubs closer wasn't trying to overcompensate with his lower half and messing up his mechanics.
As Hottovy stressed, the key will be in Wednesday's evaluation, when Kimbrel is able to come out to the field and play catch and see how his elbow recovers after the live action.
This is already the second injury for Kimbrel, who didn't make his season debut until June 27 and then missed a couple weeks in early August with a knee issue.
When he's been able to pitch, Kimbrel has 13 saves in 15 chances to go along with a 5.68 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. This is a guy who has never posted a season ERA over 3.40 or WHIP over 1.21 in his nine-year career.
The swing-and-miss stuff has been there (26 strikeouts in 19 innings), but he's also given up 6 homers so far. Between the free agent process that delayed his start to the season and the pair of injuries, Kimbrel really hasn't been able to settle into a groove in his first season with the Cubs.
"I think the best version of him is still in there," Hottovy said. "I think he'd be the first one to agree with that. But again, an 85-90 percent version of him is as good as anybody. [The key is] getting him to where he feels good, is comfortable and we're able to continue to work on things with him.
"This little stretch here gave us some time to clean up some mechanical things we wanted to do that you may not be able to do midseason when he's throwing three of four days or things like that. We were able to do a lot over this time and hopefully be back into it."
As for Kintzler, he hasn't pitched since last Tuesday in San Diego while dealing with his minor side injury.
He played catch Tuesday and the Cubs are aiming to get him off the mound in a bullpen Wednesday. Once the symptoms subside and he feels like he can get back into his proper mechanics without pain, he'll be ready to return and he's currently holding out hope he'd be ready for Friday's game against St. Louis.
Kintzler thinks he initially hurt his oblique when he fell on the mound throwing a pitch a few weeks ago.
"It just never felt the same after that," he said. "It was day-to-day. Some days were good, some were bad. Some days I was available, some days I wasn't. So it got to the point where I couldn't do that to the team anymore, so we had to shut it down and try to get it right."
The rest of the bullpen has been coming up huge for the Cubs — they have an NL-best 2.32 ERA in September — even without two of the top arms. That's thanks to the emergence of Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck and Kyle Ryan, plus veterans David Phelps, Tyler Chatwood and Steve Cishek.
"Just gotta stay patient," Kintzler said. "San Diego was probably the worst pain I was in. So that wasn't good for anybody. I think the other guys can get the job done if I can't. I just gotta stay patient knowing that if it doesn't feel right, I don't have to rush because the guys are doing a great job. That's helped out a lot mentally for me."
But like Hottovy said, if getting Kimbrel or Kintzler back at only 85 percent would still help the team and with an expanded roster, the Cubs can get away with giving either veteran extra time off after outings.
With the Cubs squaring off against the Cardinals in seven of the final 10 games beginning Thursday, they would certainly like to have Kimbrel and Kintzler available for as many of those contests as they can.
"A lot of it is the communication with how are they feeling? If you rush them back and they pitch one game and then they're down for four days, is that better than them taking two or three extra days at the front end and then being able to regularly pitch like they normally could?" Hottovy said. "That's what we're trying to balance.
"Right now, we have a little bit more flexibility. If we didn't want Kimbrel to throw another live BP, we can ease him into it because we have the Wi(e)cks, we have Phelps and Chatwood and those guys. We have more numbers down there. So you can pitch him one day and know he's gonna have a few days off potentially to have some coverage.
"We balance all that out and the biggest thing is getting the guys comfortable where they know if they go out on the mound, they can execute. That's the No. 1 thing. Once they can do that and they feel strong and they're recovering well, then I think we'll be ready to roll them out."